Thursday, December 16, 2010

Embrace Asia before taking on the world

Australia will be named as host of the
2015 AFC Asian Cup in just 21 days time
It won’t capture the imagination as much as the FIFA World Cup Bid Announcement, in fact there probably wont even be a live announcement on TV and it will only get a passing mention on news bulletins, if it all, but in just 21 days time Australia will be confirmed as the host of the 2015 AFC Asian Cup.

After the disappointment of missing out on 2022 in humiliating circumstances, most people will skoff and say “big deal”, but it is exactly that. It is a big deal.

Some say we were na├»ve in going for 2022 and that we needed to prove ourselves as a Football nation. The 2015 AFC Asian Cup provides us with an opportunity to do just that, but perhaps more importantly it will give us a chance to prove we’re an Asian nation.

Despite rising coverage, Australian’s still largely ignore Asian Football and disregard it as ‘second-rate’. Australia went into the 2007 AFC Asian Cup with largely that attitude. It was presumed we would waltz in and win it at our first attempt without a worry in the world.

We were quickly, and rightly, given a rude shock.

What 2015 will do is showcase the best Asian Football has to offer to this largely uneducated audience. It will, hopefully, break down barriers, remove stereotypes and allow Australia to embrace Asian Football.

It will, hopefully, also allow Asia to embrace Australia.

There is still apprehension to Australia joining the AFC from some quarters. We’re not viewed as an Asian nation. Even Mohammed Bin Hammam, the AFC President who played a large part in Australia being accepted into The AFC, still doesn’t really view Australia as an “Asian” nation, as evidenced by his recent comments.

Frank Lowy & Ben Buckley present Australia's bid for the
2015 AFC Asian Cup to Mohammed Bin Hammam

When asked by respected Asian Football journalist, John Duerden, whether he would give his vote to another Asian nation in the event Qatar were knocked out of the bidding to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup, Bin Hammam replied, “You are considering Australia as an Asian country?”

That answer says so much about Australia’s standing within The AFC.

Australia’s integration into Asia will take years, perhaps decades, before we’re really considered to be a true part of The AFC. We’re one of the only nations within The AFC that I am aware of that doesn’t compete in it’s own regional Football tournament – the AFF Cup (also known as the Suzuki Cup).

Getting full membership of the ASEAN Football Federation and having a team participate in the biennial AFF Cup must be close to top of the agenda for the FFA. It is important politically as well as being important for our football development.

We need our Football powerbrokers to take up key positions within Asian Football and we need to regularly have a member of the AFC Executive Committee.

Talk of Australia needing a seat on the FIFA Exco are massively premature, especially when we’re so weak politically in our own region. Let’s first “conquer” Asia before we think about conquering the world.

And that is what the 2015 AFC Asian Cup will help us achieve. By no means will we have “conquered” Asia by simply hosting the tournament, but we will have gone a long way to improving our standing within the region and our acceptance as an Asian nation – both here and abroad.

That is why hosting the 2015 AFC Asian Cup is a big deal.


Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Victory require a change in attitude towards Asia

For the third time in four years Melbourne Victory will participate in the showpiece Football tournament of our region – the AFC Champions League.

Expectations were high heading into the Victory’s first campaign, and the club approached the campaign with much excitement and expectation and the fans came out in force for their first taste of Champions League football.

On the whole, it was a respectable effort by the Victory, finishing second in Group G behind eventual champions Gamba Osaka. At that stage, AFC Champions League rules meant only the top team from each group advanced to the Quarter Finals.

The Victory may only have won the two games, but they showed respect for the competition and averaged a healthy crowd of 19,023 across their three home games.

The 2010 campaign could not have been any more different.

The Victory, unlike their 2008 campaign, were in the middle of a A-League finals campaign and faced a schedule that demanded a lot of the players.

But the attitude was different; this time around the club viewed the AFC Champions League almost as a distraction, and the excuses were rolled out from before the group stage even began. Victory admitted defeat before they even started.

And it showed in the results.

A 1-0 loss away to Beijing Guoan was by no means a horror start, and it could have been so much different had Victory converted one of numerous golden opportunities in the final few minutes.

A loss at home to Seongnam, who again like Gamba in 2008 went on to become eventual champions, was compounded by an embarrassing 0-4 loss away to Kawasaki.

The Victory’s only win of the campaign would come against Kawasaki in Melbourne, with Kevin Muscat converting a relatively soft penalty. But for large parts of the game the Victory were under attack and had Mitch Langerak to thank for keeping them in the game.

The club’s pathetic attitude rubbed off on the fans, with an average gate of only 6768. In fact the aggregate gate across all three games (20,304) is only just higher than the average of their 2008 campaign.

The attitude of the Victory was expressed by captain Kevin Muscat after the final home game against Beijing.

"To be honest, playing in Asia, is not all that enjoyable," he told Fox Sports.

"People going down left, right and centre, stalling for time, it's not that enjoyable playing in the Champions League,” he added.

"I think it's evident for people to see. Being involved in it and watching it I can understand why people don't come and watch. People going down... it just seems that authorities can't take control."

It was an embarrassing outburst and one not forgotten by most Victory fans who are now demanding that Muscat not take part in the upcoming campaign given his obvious dislike for the tournament. His shaky form and susceptibility to the quick, crisp movement of the east Asian teams is another factor.

That brings us to 2011.

The official draw for the 2011 AFC Champions League was conducted in Kuala Lumpur last night and the Victory, who qualified as runner-up of the A-League, will, in a strange twist, face the runner-up from the J.League, K-League and Chinese Super League – Gamba Osaka, Jeju United and Tianjin TEDA.

Victory and Gamba Osaka have history, dating back to the 2008 campaign. The two teams played out a thrilling contest at Docklands, with Lucas netting an 89th minute winner for the Osaka outfit.

The Brazilian won’t be back to trouble the Victory this time around, with Gamba confirming that the Brazilian will be cut loose at the end of their current campaign.

But in Takashi Usami and Shoki Hirai they have two young and dangerous strikers, and if a play for Deznan Radoncic, currently at this year’s ACL winners Seongnam, comes to fruition they’ll posses a strike force that strike fear into the Victory’s defence.

In another little quirk, two of Victory’s opponents (Gamba Osaka and Tianjin TEDA) are from cities that have a Sister City relationship with Melbourne.

The draw hasn’t been easy to Victory, but it hasn’t been bad to them either. They won’t face the champion team from Japan, Korea or China as they have in previous seasons.

But all that will be academic unless there is a drastic change in attitude.

Sure, the AFC Champions League may only be in its infancy is a truly professional competition, but to show the disrespect towards the competition that the Victory did last year sends a bad message to the rest of the Asian football fraternity.

With the first game, a tricky trip to Osaka, just over two months away it remains to be seen how Victory will approach this year’s competition.


Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Where to from here for Australia?

It’s taken a few days, mostly spent moping around, to get over the massive disappointment of Australia missing out on hosting the 2022 FIFA World Cup.

Not only disappointment, but humiliation at being bundled out in the first round with one solitary vote.

But that cannot change, it is what it is, and we must learn from it and get back to growing Football in Australia.

In some ways, it is a blessing that we missed out on the World Cup. It has highlighted areas in the game that need massive amounts of work, and perhaps had we been successful these areas may have received the “papering over the cracks” treatment rather than a full re-plastering.

Not only that, but now the FFA has no World Cup distractions taking away from the A-League and grassroots here in Australia.

In the long run this will be better for Football.

FFA Chairman, Frank Lowy, and FFA CEO, Ben Buckley, will face the media today at a press conference in Sydney. The focus – the future of Football is bright.

Of that there is no question, whether the FFA in its current state is best equipped to make the most of it is another question.

Let’s have a look at some of the big issues, in no particular order, facing the game.

Ben Buckley - his time is up!

1.      Management & Leadership
The most simple question – where the hell is it? Ben Buckley came to the FFA with a big reputation having just secured the AFL a record breaking $780m TV rights deal. But his record at the FFA has been far from impressive. Here are just some of his failures:

  • Pim Verbeek – Despite what some claim, Pim as a Manager was fantastic for Australia. We achieved great results and easily qualified for the World Cup. Whilst I don’t agree with many that Pim continually bagged the A-League, the perception that he did was allowed to continue without any major rebuttal from head office. No one got on the front foot to defend the game from attack after attack and it has suffered greatly.

  • A-League Expansion – This was something that was supposed to grow the A-League. After four successful seasons of growth, the A-League was ready to take the next step and expand, thus growing the sport in Australia. Instead it has been one major, major stuff-up. Gold Coast had an owner that turned their community off the club before a ball had even been kicked (that’s assuming the community actually knew the club existed) and half way through the first season Nth Queensland lost crucial investors and Don Matheson pulled the pin after just one season. There are so many issues I could go on, and on, and on, and on. But needless to say Buckley has well and truly butchered the expansion. That’s without mentioning Sydney Rovers.
With his contract up in just a matter of days, surely the FFA cannot give the man a new contract after the last four years. It’s time for a fresh face to inject some life back into the FFA and most importantly they need to be a face for the game. We continually see Andrew Demetriou, David Gallop, James Sutherland out in the media promoting the game, yet we see nothing from Buckley or new Head of A-League, Lyall Gorman.

2.      Promotion
Apparently there is this Football competition in Australia known as the A-League! Know anything about it? Unless you’re a Football tragic or take an interest in the game, you probably don’t. The A-League was launched with a blaze of sexy, slick advertising which has now all but disappeared.

I cannot remember the last time I saw an A-League advertisement on television (free to air). The fact is the WC Bid consumed so much of the FFA’s time, effort and money the A-League was badly neglected and its obvious that it has suffered badly.

To their credit the FFA at least seem to be trying to find ways to fix it, conducting an across-the-board strategic review of the A-League and engaging the fans and media to discuss ways to growing and promoting the game.

The A-League this season has been by far the best quality, yet the crowds and interest are declining. It doesn’t make sense.

3.      North Queensland Fury
The Fury cannot be allowed to just wither away and die

I beg the FFA – do not let the Fury die. It would be a massive, massive mistake to let the club representing a massive region of Australia just die off. The club is working bloody hard to find a solution to their ownership crisis and believe they have the right framework to move forward. They just need a little help over the next 12-18 months.

The outcry from the community says it all – this club means something to the people up there. You cannot put a price on that. The FFA want the local community to show their commitment by putting their hard earned on the line and turning up to games. But how do they expect people to form a connection and relationship with the club when the place is a revolving door of players and backroom staff.

The Football community up in North Queensland is strong and has produced a number of quality players – think Steve Corica and Michael Thwaite just to name two. It also has a strong aboriginal community and can do crucial work in developing football amongst the indigenous population.

The club has so much potential, we know how mad North Queenslanders are about their sport, just give them some time to get their house in order.

Not everything is doom & gloom though. The introduction of an FFA Cup is a positive step, provided they get the format correct; the nationwide competition review will hopefully lead to a better “second tier” of Football in Australia and the review of the A-League should lead to some promising initiatives.

Together with that with on-field action in the A-League has been taken to another level and will hopefully only get better, we’re starting to attract better quality imports (Broich, Solorzano, Flores, Hernandez etc), we’re a month away from being confirmed as the host for the 2015 Asian Cup and our junior teams and women’s team will play in their respective World Cup’s next year.

The FFA are right, the future is bright, but unless changes are made they wont be in a position to make the most of it.

The ball is in your court FFA – what are you going to do with it?